Minnesota Farmer

Corn by any other name

What we here in the U.S. call corn, most of the rest of the world calls maize.  To be specific, maize is zea mays, and it comes in many different forms, and there lies some of the promise and problems.  57961_580_360

When you see a field of corn growing in most of the U.S. I am sure that the public thinks only of the sweet corn that they eat.  Thus they are mislead to think that any other use for corn is taking food from our mouths, but corn is so much more.

Corn is ancient in cultivation by man and is thought to have originated from the teosithe plant of Central America.  For over 7000 years man has been tinkering with this plant until it does not even resemble its ancestors.

Zea mays comes in several forms, the most cultivated one in the U.S. is Dent Corn.  Dent Corn also known as Yellow Dent CornReid’s Yellow Dent Corn, or Field Corn (Zea mays var. indentata) is a variety of maize or corn with a high soft starch content. It received its name because of the small indentation (“dent”) at the crown of each kernel on a ripe ear of corn.  Dent corn is the variety used in food manufacturing as the base ingredient for cornmeal flour (used in the baking of cornbread), corn chipstortillas and taco shells. Starch derived from this high-starch content variety is turned into plastics, as well as fructose which is used as a sweetener (High-fructose corn syrup) in many processed foods and soft drinks.

Dent corn is also a main ingredient in most livestock feed here in the U.S..  While just the grain may be fed to hogs and poultry, cattle are more likely to eat the whole plant.  Farmers chop and store the corn plant for feed in semi enclosed structures that limit oxygen, thus the plant is slightly fermented and will not rot even though the moisture content is quite high.

A growing use for field corn is the production of ethanol for use as a fuel in cars and trucks.  Ethanol production requires only the starch portion of a corn kernel.  The remaining protein, fat, fiber and other nutrients are returned to the global livestock and poultry feed markets.  Every bushel of corn processed by an ethanol plant produces approximately 17 pounds of animal feed. – See more at: http://www.ethanolrfa.org/pages/how-ethanol-is-made#sthash.8S4k109n.dpuf  The U.S. Department of Energy has published facts stating that current corn-based ethanol results in a 19% reduction in greenhouse gases, and is better for the environment than other gasoline additives such as MTBE.


The corn that most people in the U.S. think about is sweet corn.  Sweet corn occurs as a spontaneous mutation in field corn and was grown by several Native American tribes.  The Iroquois gave the first recorded sweet corn (called Papoon) to European settlers in 1779. It soon became a popular food in southern and central regions of the United States.  Sweet corn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa; also called sugar corn and pole corn) is a variety of maize with a high sugar content.

Sweet corn is the result of a naturally occurring recessive mutation in the genes which control conversion of sugar to starch inside the endosperm of the corn kernel.  Unlike field corn varieties, which are harvested when the kernels are dry and mature (dent stage), sweet corn is picked when immature (milk stage) and prepared and eaten as a vegetable, rather than a grain.  Since the process of maturation involves converting sugar to starch, sweet corn stores poorly and must be eaten fresh, canned, or frozen, before the kernels become tough and starchy.200px-VegCorn

Pop corn is another food variety that is common in the U.S.  Popcorn was first discovered thousands of years ago by the people living in what is now Peru. It is one of the oldest forms of corn; evidence of popcorn from 3600 B.C. was found in New Mexico, while even older evidence was found in Peru. It is estimated that these remnants date from as early as 4700 B.C.

Popcorn, also known as popping corn, expands from the kernel and puffs up when heated. Corn is able to pop because, like amaranth grainsorghumquinoa, and millet, its kernels have a hard moisture-sealed hull and a dense starchy interior.Pressure builds inside the kernel, and a small explosion (or “pop”) is the end result. 220px-PopcornCobs2007Another lesser known type of corn is flint corn.  The coloration of flint corn is often different from white and yellow dent and sweet corns, many of which were bred later. Most flint corn is multi-colored.

Flint corn, (Zea mays indurata; also known in most countries as Indian corn or sometimes calico corn) is the same species as Indian corn, but a different variant of maize (var. Linnaeus). Because each kernel has a hard outer layer to protect the soft endosperm, it is likened to being hard as flint; hence the name.

With less soft starch than dent corn (Zea mays indentata), flint corn does not have the dents in each kernel from which dent corn gets its name. This is one of the three types of corn cultivated by Native Americans, both in New England and across the northern tier, including by tribes such as the Pawnee on the Great PlainsArcheologists have found evidence of such corn cultivation by the Pawnee and others since at least 1250 AD. Cultivation of corn occurred hundreds of years earlier among the Mississippian culture people, whose civilization arose based on population density and trade because of surplus corn crops.

200px-CorncobsThe least know member of the corn family is pod corn.  Pod corn (Zea mays var. tunicata) is a variety of maize that has kernels enclosed in elongated glumes.  Because the Tunicate phenotype is a universal characteristic of wild grasses and is different from naked kernels in maize varieties common today, pod corn is thought to be a progenitor of maize by some researchers.  Pod corn is mostly found in South and Central America.UnknownSo there you have it, maize is a wonderful, diverse and ancient plant that has much potential to help both feed and fuel our world.  It is perhaps one of mans most changed and changeable crops.  With modern genetic engineering techniques I expect to see many advances that will help to make our world a better place.  Man is not done tinkering with maize.


2 Comments so far
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Terrific posting. I wanted to tweet the link but I don’t see that in your share. I’ll do it manually.

Comment by lenrosen4

[…] there are five types of corn.  Michael at Minnesota Farmer wrote a great post about these types – field or dent, sweet, popping, flint (Indian or decorative) and pod corn.  Within each of […]

Pingback by The Different Types of Corn | Rural Route 2

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